Brooks & Warren on Showing & Telling


I think I’m going to post part of the introduction to each chapter of Understanding Fiction by Brooks & Warren, 3rd edition (1979), to summarize their main ideas about fiction.  This one is a digression, so you get it out of order.  In the intro to chapter 3, “What Character Reveals”, they talk about showing versus telling while talking about characters.

(BTW, this intro to chapter 3 is completely new in the third edition (5 pages, vs. 1 in the 1st ed.)  They revised everything in the 3rd edition, even the discussions of the same stories, although those generally make the same points.)

        Warning:  They use the term “indirect” to mean “showing” and “direct” to mean “telling” when they talk about describing a character, and “direct” to mean “showing” and “indirect” to mean “telling” when they talk about dialogue. It makes some sense, since they use “indirectly describing” as a double-negative. They mean “indirectly summarizing”, which means “indirectly not directly depicting”, or “directly depicting”.

How shall the author present his character? Directly, with a summary of his traits and characteristics [telling], or indirectly (that is, through dialogue and action [showing])?  The very nature of fiction suggests that the second method is its characteristic means, yet direct presentation is constantly used in fiction, often effectively.  Much depends upon the underlying purpose of the story and much depends upon matters of scope and scale.  If the author made every presentation of character indirectly, insisting that each character gradually unfold himself through natural talk and gesture and action, the procedure might become intolerably boring.  “The Necklace” indicates how direct presentation—and even summary presentation—can be properly and effectively used.  (Look back at the first three paragraphs of this story on page 66.)  But when he comes to the significant scenes of the story, the author of “The Necklace” discards summary in favor of dramatic presentation.

The danger of direct presentation is that it tends to forfeit the vividness of drama and the reader’s imaginative participation. Direct, descriptive presentation works best, therefore, with rather flat and typical characters, or as a means to get rapidly over more perfunctory materials.  When direct presentation of character becomes also direct comment on a character, the author may find himself “telling” us what to feel and think rather than “rendering” a scene for our imaginative participation.  In “The Furnished Room,”for example, O. Henry tends to “editorialize” on the hero’s motives and beliefs, and constant plucking at the reader’s sleeve and nudging him to sympathize with the hero’s plight may become so irritating that the whole scene seems falsified.  Yet in D. H. Lawrence’s “Tickets, Please,” we shall see that direct commentary–and even explicit interpretation of the characters’ motives–can on occasion be effectively used by an author.

An author’s selection of modes of character presentation will depend upon a number of things. His decision on when to summarize traits or events, on when to describe directly, and on when to allow the character to express his feelings through dialogue and action, will depend upon the general end of the story and upon the way in which the action of the story is to be developed…

Indirect discourse [telling], like [“direct”] character summary and description, is a quicker way of getting over the ground, and in fiction has its very important uses.  Notice, for example, in “War” that the husband’s explanation of why his wife is to be pitied is indirect discourse: “And he felt it his duty to explain… that the poor woman was to be pitied, for the war was taking away her only son.” But the speeches of the old man who argues for the sublimity of sacrificing one’s son for one’s country are given as direct discourse. The importance of the old man’s speeches to the story, the need for dramatic vividness, the very pace of the story–all call for direct discourse.